By the time her talk was over, the tiny 91-year-old Jewish great-grandmother had caused murderers, thieves and drug offenders to openly weep.
Sonia Warshawski of Prairie Village shuffled her 4-foot 8-inch self beyond the fence and razor wire surrounding the Topeka Correctional Facility. She stood in front of some 30 of the prison’s 900 women bearing inmate numbers.
No. 104804, inmate Raychel Lopez-Owens, age 40, convicted of aggravated robbery.
No. 114010, inmate Eman Malkawi, age 30: robbery, second degree murder.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
No. 107498, inmate Michelle Voorhees, age 26: burglary, arson, second degree murder.
Before long, “Big Sonia” — as the soon-to-premiere award-winning documentary about Warshawski is titled — was revealing her own number: 48689.
It remains tattooed in blue ink on the top of her left forearm, forcibly put there when she was a teenager and also imprisoned, first inside the Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek, then to the notorious death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen.
Twice she was forced to stand in front of the “Angel of Death,” the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, who determined whether she would live or be killed and cast into the crematorium. At Majdenek, a camp outside Lublin in then-Nazi-occupied eastern Poland, she watched her mother, only 42 years old, marched off to die in a gas chamber.
Yet, perhaps incongruously, Warshawski had begun her talk last week on a light note.
“This is the highest point in my life,” she said in the Polish accent of her youth. “I hope when I leave here, a little sunshine can come into your souls by telling you what can be even worse than what (you) … are going through.”
Then, for the next 90 minutes, she unfurled a tale of horror that she also intended to be infused with an affirming message:
Hate and anger only ruin lives. No matter how much tragedy, violence and hurt one has endured — and in the case of the inmates, also willingly or unwillingly created for others — there is always hope. Through tolerance, respect and, for the inmates, their own self-improvement, life can change for the better.
“She is such an extraordinary woman to have all this happen to her and still come out like she is,” said Petro Amara, 39, serving time on drug charges. “I haven’t had a good childhood. Yet, for a very long time I’ve used it as excuses to be the way I was, to treat people the way I did for no reason, because of my childhood.
“To have a door opened and a light shined on me in a different view, I take a lot from her.”
For some in Kansas City, Warshawski’s story is familiar.
The Star profiled her in May 2014 when, at age 88, she was the proprietor of John’s Tailoring & Alterations, started by her late husband, also a Holocaust survivor. She was then preparing to relocate the shop, one of the last tenants of the soon-to-be shuttered Metcalf South Shopping Center at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park. The shop is now at 95th and Nall Avenue.
Leah Warshawksi, her granddaughter and a filmmaker, was shooting footage at that time for what became “Big Sonia,” the documentary finished last November. Since then, the film has screened at nearly 30 national and international film festivals, winning top honors at nine.
The movie’s theatrical premiere is scheduled for Nov. 17 in New York, with a fall opening in Kansas City awaiting confirmation. The film will also be shown Oct. 8 as part of a fundraiser for Reaching Out From Within, which works toward inmate rehabilitation throughout Kansas.
Working with the nonprofit, Warshawski began telling her story at Kansas prisons two years ago.
“It gives them a different perspective of being in prison in America and being in prison in a German concentration camp,” said SuEllen Fried, a mental health activist from Prairie Village. Fried co-founded the nonprofit in 1982 with Greg Musselman, an inmate serving a life sentence.
“This tiny, little woman,” Fried said. “She survived because of her wits and her determination. She brings hope. She says to them, ‘If I can get out of prison and I can survive, imagine how you can survive. Imagine what you can do with your lives.’”
Warshawski was forced to imagine the unimaginable beginning in 1939 with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. In quick time, Jews in Poland were stripped of their rights, their homes, businesses and possessions, even the freedom to walk anywhere other than in the gutter.
Jews were marked, forced to wear a yellow star on their chests. They were uprooted from their homes and forced into ghettos.
Born in 1925, the middle child of three and the daughter of a furrier, Warshawski lived in the ghetto of Miedzyrzec from 1941 to 1943. Before the war, some 18,000 Jews lived in her hometown, she told the inmates.
“Only 200 survived the concentration camps,” she said.
Six transports left Miedzyrzec. Friends and neighbors were pressed, suffocatingly close, into railroad cattle cars destined for Treblinka, where between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews would be murdered in its gas chambers.
Word of the Jews’ fate had gotten out. The Warshawskis attempted to hide, then escape before deportation.
Warshawski’s father and older brother tried, only to be captured and summarily shot.
In what Warshawski calls a miracle, her younger sister fled into the woods, where she survived the war with the help of partisans, and ultimately called Israel home.
But Warshawski and her mother were herded into a cattle car.
“People were dying of thirst,” she told the inmates. “I was standing on bodies.”
Instead of taking them to Treblinka to the north for certain death, her train was rerouted to Majdenek to the south. For six months, they worked and barely survived starvation. They withered to the bone. They witnessed prisoners hanged, others ripped to death by German shepherds.
Bodies were burned. Warshawski spread their ashes in the fields.
“As fertilizer,” she said.
Similar horrors waited her at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she lasted for 1 1/2 more years.
The ashes of burning corpses fell like snow.
“I would like to mention to you, it was very easy to commit suicide if you gave up in that camp,” Warshawski said. An electrified fence surrounded the camp. “All you had to do is walk up to the electric wiring and with one finger, and that’s it. It was very easy. … We had every morning suicides.”
But her will to live was strong.
“I was so determined to survive,” she said.
By January 1945, it became clear that Germany was on the verge of losing the war. Troops from the Soviet Union would soon reach Auschwitz. In response, the Nazis marched 60,000 prisoners, including Warshawski, in the snow from the camps. Some froze along the way. Others were shot.
At Bergen-Belsen, her final camp, Warshawski lived among the dead, mounds of victims of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery.
“You can in your imagination, close your eyes,” she told the inmates. “Thousands and thousand of people dying every day. … Stacks and stacks of bodies. The stench was for miles you could smell it.”
Then on April 15, 1945, was the day of liberation by British soldiers. Prisoners could feel the rumble of tanks in the distance. That day, Warshawski, working the kitchen, was shot in the chest by a guard.
“I will tell you again,” she said, “that we have to believe in a higher power which was over me. … When blood starting coming out of my mouth, I was saying … ‘God almighty, after what I went through already… now I have to die?’”
She lived, to go on and meet and marry another survivor, to go on and have three children and a long life in the Kansas City area.
The inmates praised her.
“I really admire you not being bitter,” Voorhees said.
“I just want to say you’re an inspiration,” Lopez-Owens said. “You have really been through some hard times. I am really going through some hard times being away from my kids in lockdown. And if you can make it, I know that I can make it.”
One inmate asked her how she found it in her heart to forgive. Warshawski, having urged the inmates toward kindness, to understand the outcome of anger and hate, said she couldn’t lie.
“I shall never forget. I shall never forgive,” she said and would go on to explain. “Why I say I cannot forgive? Because forgiveness, in my opinion, has borders. How in the world can I tell you I forgive? I will feel ashamed, embarrassed, what I have seen those people dying, those terrible things.
“Who am I that I can forgive? This has to come from a higher power. Not from me. This is impossible. I would be wrong.”
But, she said, “I’ll never hate. If I hate, I destroy myself.”
See the film
“Big Sonia” will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch as part of a fundraiser for the local nonprofit, Reaching Out From Within. Tickets start at $100. For details, see rofw.org. The film is expected to open in Kansas City theaters later in the fall.